Reviews in this issue:
- Soul Secret – Flowing Portraits (Duo Review)
- Dark Suns – Grave Human Genuine
- Simon Says - Tardigrade
- Taylor's Universe - Certain Undiscoveries
- Taylor's Universe With Denner - Soundwall
- Cyril Achard Trio - Trace
Soul Secret – Flowing Portraits
Martien Koolen's Review
This new young Italian prog metal band has probably listened to Dream Theater a lot, because on their debut album called Flowing Portraits you can recognise a couple of rather familiar DT riffs and melodies. Soul Secret was founded back in 2004 and after a couple of personnel changes the band finally found their ideal line up and signed a contract with ProgRock Records earlier this year. The CD was mastered by no one less than Karl Groom, who is of course the guitar picker of Threshold.
Soul Secret’s music can be best described as a colourful mix of prog rock, metal, rock and symphonic rock. Certain musical parts remind me of bands like DT, Dynamic Lights and Mind Key. The latter being a rather obvious influence as the ex-lead singer of Mind Key – Mark Basile – did all the vocal parts on this CD as the regular singer – Michele Serpico - of the band was ill during the recording.
Dance Of The Waves is the opener and this one is a true prog metal song, filled with staccato riffs, amazing guitar parts and outstanding melodies. During First Creature and Inner War the piano tends to get more dominant and because of that, the music sounds much more like Dynamic Lights during those two tracks. The absolute failure on this CD is the boring, acoustic song Regrets, but if you skip that one then you can enjoy a rather great prog metal album. Highlight is the last, epic song called Tears Of Kalliroe, which features an amazing orchestral overture, followed by sheer brilliant prog metal passages, which I could listen to for hours…
If Soul Secret is able to develop their style a bit more, then I promise this young Italian band a great future. So, keep your ears open for Soul Secret!
Edwin Roosjen's Review
Soul Secret is a band from Italy that does not hide the fact that it is influenced by Dream Theater, they even started out as a Dream Theater cover band and have continued with this style in their own material.
From the founding in 2004 members Lucio Grilli (bass), Antonio Mocerino (drums) and Antonio Vittozzi (guitars) are still present and after some personnel changes the band reached a balanced setting including Luca Di Gennaro (keyboards) and Michele Serpico (vocals). Unfortunately Michele Serpico became ill before the recording of the album and the vocal parts have been sung by ex-Mind Key vocalist Mark Basile. Whether or not Michele Serpico will return is uncertain at this time. The mastering was done by Karl Groom (Threshold) which resulted in a superb production.
It would be to easy to brand this band as just another Dream Theater clone although if I had to sum it all up, then the music is less complicated and more in service of the song. All the complex elements are present, time changes and fast solos - occasionally with both guitar and keyboard, but do not seem to have been stretched to the maximum, just for the sake of it. I especially enjoy the fact that the amount of guitar solos is at an acceptable level and the balance for Soul Secret is slightly favourable for the keyboard solos. One thing that is almost exactly alike are the vocals, as Mark Basile sounds a lot like James LaBrie and I must say that Mark's voice is more pleasant to listen to.
From the very start Flowing Portraits is a powerful album and Soul Secret is a welcome addition in progressive metal. Regrets is were the power is put to a stop, it's a beautiful acoustic song with soul. A good song to catch a bit of breath before Tears Of Kalliroe really lifts this album. It starts slowly with movie score sounds, gradually the power increases and with the bass and drums provide a solid structure for this monumental song. The accent for the guitar on this song is mainly in the powerful riffs, but what power and timing from this man. The main part of the solos and melodies are placed in the hands of the keyboard player, he has been given the largest space to excel. All things considered though, I still think vocalist Mark Basile is the celebrated man on Tears Of Kalliroe and he fully shows his capabilities - during the powerful parts he is very convincing. Tears Of Kalliroe is by far the best song on the album a nd towards the end of the song the intensity increases to a huge climax...
You can certainly hear the similarity, but Soul Secret is not just another band that copies the style of Dream Theater and compared to other style copiers this band has succeeded in creating their own identity. The songs are complex, but not stuffed with technical extravaganza and they have certainly maintained an overview keeping all within acceptable boundaries. This does not detract them from creating an epic song with plenty of enjoyable moments, and as mentioned earlier Tears Of Kalliroe best illustrates this point. Hopefully the band can find a permanent singer, Mark Basile has done more than a great job as a substitute and his contribution to this album cannot be underestimated. Flowing Portraits is an album of high quality and should appeal to progressive metal fans all over the world.
Dark Suns – Grave Human Genuine
Tracklist: Stampede (3:07), Flies In Amber (9:52), Thornchild (7:11), Rapid Eyes Moment (7:20), Amphibian Halo (5:16), The Chameleon Defect (6:08), Free Of You (8:42), Papillon (5:29) Bonus track: 29 (6:24)
The passage of time inevitably makes a reviewer question the rating they awarded an album. A number of times I’ve looked back and wondered if I’ve scored an album too highly – particularly one that is initially appealing but its appeal fades with the passage of time. Less often I wonder if I was rather cautious with my rating. Dark Suns’ second album Existence being a case in point – almost three years after its release, I still return to it regularly, making me wonder whether seven out of ten wasn’t a bit on the stingy side. That said, I still stand by my criticisms that, at over seventy minutes, the album was a bit on the long side, and that it was rather one-paced and samey in places, meaning it ran out of steam by the end. Pleasingly, all of these criticisms seem to have been addressed for Grave Human Genuine, in the process surely making this German outfit a major player in the genre you could vaguely label ‘dark prog’.
Amongst the usual reference points – Anathema, Porcupine Tree, Opeth and (in particular) Pain Of Salvation – Prophecy mention Tool in their promo blurb. Whilst it would be stretching it to say that much, if anything, on Grave Human Genuine sounds directly like this very individual US band, there certainly are new, more industrialised and claustrophobic elements at play on occasions so that I can see why the comparison is made. To jump back to the Pain Of Salvation influence, its probably worth saying that bass duties are handled by ex-PoS man Kristoffer Gildenlöw – although to be honest his bass playing is most noticeable on the least PoS like tracks!
Grave Human Genuine opens with an ominous, atmospheric introductory piece, Stampede – child’s voices are set over doomy power chords, with the piece clanking into life with some powerful driving rhythms, offset by a more reflective latter part of the song. This leads into an undoubted highlight, the excellent Flies In Amber. Flute-like sounds mingle with crisp heavy riffs to create a sound not unlike Dead Soul Tribe at their best, before the vocals enter – a well-executed combination of growls and roars (from guest Schmidt) and Niko Knappe’s rather Daniel Gildenlöw-esque emotional crooning. The song builds steadily, built on some momentous riffs, weaving in some vaguely middle-eastern sounds (both in melody and percussion), before reaching an emotional crescendo, with impassioned vocals from Knappe and a great sinewy guitar solo from his brother Maik.
Thornchild continues the quality, and is probably the most Existence-like track on Grave Human Genuine. Opening with a solo vocal, the gently intertwining guitar work is skilfully and gradually woven in, with the band building a head of steam almost without you noticing. Rather off-puttingly I found the main melody eerily similar to that of a hit single by eighties ‘new romantics’ A Flock Of Seagulls, but I’ll assume this was unintentional! Anyway, there’s plenty of sweeping waves of guitars and symphonic synths, bravura percussive work and interesting touches such as some scat singing and samples, to keep the song sounding interesting, and fresh yet familiar. The rather awkwardly titled Rapid Eyes Moment (perhaps they wanted to avoid Riverside comparisons?!) is a slow-burner full of emotion which certainly bears comparison with latter-day Anathema; in the latter part of the song, the ‘I Should Have Studied Mathematics’ string quartet add some colour to the sound.
Some strange atonal electronica at the end of Rapid Eyes Moment leads into the first of a couple of tracks which show a different side to the band. Based around a hypnotic drum pattern and a repetitive piano motif, Amphibian Halo sees the band weaving organic elements into a mechanical baseline to produce an intriguing piece which, with the extensive use of vocoder in the latter section, bears some comparison to Anathema’s Closer. The twisting, turning instrumental Chameleon Defect, meanwhile, majors on Gildenlöw’s funky bass lines and some great guitar playing by Maik Knappe, switching from fast Latino-style strumming to crunching power chords with ease.
The band perhaps take their foot off the gas (both pace-wise and creatively) for the last couple of tracks – the relatively mellow Free Of You has a distinctive Stupid Dream-era Porcupine Tree vibe to it, and incorporates some nice free jazz touches, but although its very atmospheric in places, it’s a little too long and doesn’t reach the sort of anthemic conclusion you might have hoped for. Papillon, with its combination of spoken word and the returning string quartet, comes over as rather pretentious – especially as you can hear more clearly some of the lyrics, which to be honest don’t always make a great deal of sense. The track does eventually build on these foundations, but in terms of being a fitting climax for what is generally an excellent album it falls rather short. There is one more song - 29 is a jazz-tinged, more laid back kind of track, pleasant but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album – hence why it’s a bonus track I guess…
Overall, whilst the album does slip a little in quality terms towards the album’s conclusion, and I would perhaps liked to see the aggression apparent in Flies In Amber woven into a few of the other tracks, this still remains a fine album. There’s more variety and better song writing than on Existence, and although the band’s influences are still readily apparent, they are going some way to creating their own unique sound. Although I don’t want to overstress the Pain Of Salvation influence and connections, I would still say that those ‘lapsed’ PoS fans who weren’t enamoured with the Swedish band’s last two releases should find plenty to savour here.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Simon Says - Tardigrade
Tracklist: Suddenly The Rain (14:43), Tardigrade (3:41), The Chosen One (5:32), Moon Mountain (2:32), As The River Runs (10:35), Your Future (0:26), Strawberry Jam (2:38), Circle’s End (6:21), Brother Where You Bound? (26:48), Beautiful New Day (0:43)
If you thought lengthy gaps between albums was solely the preserve of the prog rock behemoths like Yes and Pink Floyd, think again. Take Swedish progsters Simon Says, who may have released their debut album, Ceinwen, back in 1995, but have been rather tardy with follow-ups – the DPRP recommended Paradise Square eventually appeared in 2002, and 2008 finally sees the band release their third effort, Tardigrade (all albums follow on conceptually as well it appears – see the band’s website for the full story). It must be said in defence of the band’s apparent slow workrate that you can definitely see where the time has gone in this case – whatever the merits of the songs themselves, one thing its difficult to fault is the full, lush, lovingly detailed sound that band leader Stefan Renstrom and his cohorts have come up with – there can be few better sounding symphonic neo-prog albums to have come out over the last few years.
However, a great sound can only go so far; thankfully Simon Says haven’t forgotten to write some strong material as well. None more so than the superb opener, the near-fifteen minute Suddenly The Rain. Laying their cards on the table from the off, there’s an opening salvo of a wall of vintage symphonic keyboards which indicates that Genesis circa A Trick Of A Tail / Wind And Wuthering (and, particularly, the playing of Tony Banks) are a key influence. The song has a great build up, pulling back from the full-on pomp when necessary but laying it on with a trowel at more appropriate times – as well as Genesis, The Flower Kings in their late nineties prime also come to mind. There’s a strong chorus, lots of Mellotron (including a big angelic choir sound at the track’s finale) and strong solo spots, primarily on the keyboards –given that Renstrom is a keyboard and bass player, its no real surprise that these two instruments tend to dominate. His bass playing is fluid and up-beat, similar in style in fact to Spock’s Beard’s Dave Meros, and helps the songs continue to move and evolve. If there’s a weak spot, is has to be vocalist Daniel Feldt; his accented voice is hardly the strongest and most commanding in the genre, and seems to have no defined character of its own – instead he seems to lapse into pale imitations of other well known vocalists on occasion. Its’ not enough, however, to spoil the enjoyment of what is by any stretch of the imagination a great opener – perhaps if anything too great, as what follows does struggle a little to match this level of quality.
The title track is a more upbeat, rocky number which reminds me of fellow Swedes A.C.T, albeit without the vocal flamboyance. The Hammond whirring away in the background on the chorus is a nice touch, adding some warmth to proceedings. Things slow down for the start of The Chosen One, which kicks off as an acoustic ballad in the vein of Your Own Special Way, before it morphs into a sort of positive, neo-prog number a’la Arena’s Welcome To The Cage or IQ’s The Wake – the latter band coming to mind through Jonas Hallberg’s Mike Holmes-esque guitar work and Feldt’s voice, which for some reason seeks to ape Peter Nicholls, of all people. The overuse of vocoder towards the end of the song is also a bit irritating.
The gentle instrumental Moon Mountain sees Hallberg take centre stage on both acoustic and electric guitars, before As The River Runs sees the mood darken, a rather bleak and lumbering track which is a bit all over the place structurally – there’s a cha-cha-cha like piano piece inserted in the middle, for some reason – yet has some strong moments, including a stately and powerful chorus and some good wah-wah effect-laden guitar work.
Strawberry Jam is an upbeat, almost delirious instrumental, with all the instrumentalists seemingly bubbling on heat – reminiscent of both Camel and Neal Morse-era Spock’s Beard. Hallberg finally gets a chance to shine with some lengthy, impassioned solo work. Circles End is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of beats per minute, but is an equally strong piece, a predominantly acoustic ballad which works in some understated flute and symphonic synths to add colour. Latterly the track seems very similar to the Trick Of The Tail track Entangled, with its gently intertwining guitars and slightly otherworldly keyboard work.
The penultimate track is the somewhat inevitable twenty five plus minute epic Brother Where You Bound – and thankfully, as these sorts of things go it’s a good one. Yes it’s rather bloated and there is some rather aimless noodling around the middle section, but for the most part this is a high quality symphonic prog masterclass. Things get off to a driving and dynamic start – similar to the upbeat middle section of It Bites’ classic Once Around The World – which sets the scene for a highly melodic and involved epic which, although featuring plenty of solo spots for both Renstrom and Hallberg, rarely feels overly indulgent. The album finishes, perhaps a tad anti-climactically, with the (very) short ballad Beautiful New Day, its simplicity probably the antithesis of much that has gone before..
Looking back on what I’ve just written, it seems at times that I’ve been rather critical of an album which I do quite enjoy – perhaps to an extent this is a reaction against the reviews of this album I’ve seen to date; these have all been overwhelmingly positive. Whilst there’s plenty to be positive about – particularly the two epics – there are areas to be critical of too – personally I feel the band lean just a little too close at times to the mid-seventies Genesis sound, and perhaps haven’t really found their ‘own’ sound quite yet. There are also a few tracks which seem structurally a little weak – As The River Runs being the main culprit. That said, there’s no doubt that if you are partial to a bit of symphonic neo-prog Simon Says have produced an album that is highly likely to be a desirable purchase.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Taylor's Universe - Certain Undiscoveries
Tracklist: Mandrake (5:06), Little Vic (6:17), Nilfish (4:06), Majesty (0:42), Majestaeten Ministeren Og Frovarschefen (7:16), Remember The Bill (6:40), Ministry Of Light (3:32), Coming Soon (0:47), Kelds Far (4:35), Variations On A Theme by DS (3:39), A Beautiful Garden With A Lot Of Depressed Animals (8:51)
Taylor's Universe With Denner - Soundwall
Tracklist: Tag Attack (8:09), Step Aside (6:40), Out Of Season (6:02), Totally Greek (6:51), Sandwich (7:24), Aspx (8:31)
Earlier this year we undertook a review of Danish composer and multi-instrumentalist Robin Taylor's seventh release under the Robin Taylor's Universe banner. Terra Nova having been released in 2007. It would appear however that we have skipped a release along the way and that is the first CD in question here, Certain Undiscoveries, from 2006. As to how this has happened I am uncertain, but our thanks to Robin for sending this disc along with his latest offering Soundwall.
It made for an interesting project to have to review Certain Undiscoveries after its' predecessor and what made this interesting was noting the progression within the sound. I made several references to the fact that on Terra Nova, Robin Taylor had moved into a more keyboard dominated sound. The formation of that sound can be heard here.
The band was also the same as on Terra Nova with Robin Taylor (guitar, keyboards, glockenspiel & percussion), Karsten Vogel (saxophones & bass clarinet) and Rasmus Grosell (drums). The only difference here is the lack of any guest musicians. However the signature sound is here and certainly lovers of the Hammond organ will find much to their liking. Favourite track and the piece best illustrating this would have to be Nilfish with a percussive Hammond sound (tinged with just the right amount of distortion - ala Jon Lord). However Certain Undiscoveries isn't cast from the same mould as Mr Lord's band, rather taking more of a cue from the early jazz inflected Canterbury scene, and certainly Karsten Vogel's ever present saxes and clarinet cement this link.
The album opens with the rocky Mandrake with a flowing and driving guitar riff and layer upon layer of keyboards. The stomping rhythm from Grosell drives the piece along, with solos from Taylor followed by the soulful sax of Vogel. Little Vic on the other hand starts gently with a chiming keyboard motif, gradually building and again fine saxes from Vogel and a melodic solo from Robin Taylor.
Following the brief Majesty we have the driving bass synth lead Majestaeten Ministeren Og Frovarschefen and the opportunity for Karsten Vogel to cut loose. Subtle changes in mood are the order of the day here. The tempo is picked up during the jaunty Remember The Bill whereas Ministry Of Light is a stark minimalistic piece dissected by a frantic sax solo. Coming Soon acts as another interlude before the more gritty approach of the album's opener is revisited with cutting riffs from Mr Taylor and even a melodic guitar theme.
The D.S. in Variations On A Theme by DS refers to Dimitri Shostakovitch and the thematic variations are based on the third movement of his Symphony No.5 in D Minor. Taylor adopts the minimalistic approach here using piano, organ and with the addition of percussion later on in the piece. And despite its grandiose opening flurry, the majority of A Beautiful Garden With A Lot Of Depressed Animals is a fairly aimless piece - although the sonic palette does build, rising into a rather cacophonous melee towards the end. This track seems a little at odds to what has gone on before, but hey this wouldn't be Robin Taylor if there wasn't a spanner in the works somewhere along the line...
Chronologically we should now visit Terra Nova, however as mentioned earlier that particular album has already been reviewed. So to 2008 and album number twenty four for Robin Taylor and album number seven under the moniker Taylor's Universe. Although for this release we need to add "with Denner". Denner is in fact guitarist Michael Denner who joins the above mentioned trio along with Louise Nipper (voice) who returns from the previous year's Terra Nova release. Victoria Bjerre is the only new addition to fold, contributing the "little voice" - spoken words - on Aspx.
I have to say Soundwall gets off to a great start in the form of Tag Attack, from the grainy mellotron strings into the Genesis/King Crimson-esque rhythm. Vogel's succinct sax lends a more Canterbury feel to the proceedings. The organ serves to both flow and punctuate the piece along with the heavy guitar riffs which add grit to the music. With fine solo contributions, you'll find some cracking little prog moments in this track. Strangely at the 5:00 minute mark the track moves into a much lighter/electronic mode with sampled voices and a gentle melody line. Initially I had assumed this was a different track...
The heavier (but by no means metal) sound continues through the opening couple of minutes of Step Aside with the top line taken by a melodic, blues inflected, guitar solo courtesy of Michael Denner. However at the two minute mark the track slides down and is replaced initially by simple broken riffs followed by silences. This section builds in ferocity allowing brief and increasingly intense solos from all concerned. Whilst the five minute mark returns us once again to the opening theme for the outro...
Mellotron returns for Out Of Season, gradually punctuated by a simple piano motif. The piece dissolves into eerie ambient wash, slowly evolving with catchy melody lines from guitar and sax. Totally Greek is a gentle resting point on the album and continues the idea of simple but catchy melodies layered down in the previous track. Totally Greek has an almost Enya-like quality, that is both infectious and relaxing. But this is Robin Taylor and at the five minute mark the track breaks loose with a full band arrangement. The repeated melody stays but this time with solo sections from the guitar.
Sandwich continues the lighter phases of the album, again with an ambient wash but with subtly mixed organ and piano, backward loops and treatments. This lasts for several minutes before a heavy percussive synth bass line and sparse drumming pick up the pace. A gradually building section features some excellent sax in the form of a contextually melodic solo. Percussion and more effects are added as the track builds to a climax.
It is a headphone only experience for the first minute or so of Aspx, eventually however the track bounces into full flow, and this great flow stems from Grosell's kit and the repetitive loops. Denner again adds some melodic guitar, however, the last couple of minutes are again a headphone only thing...
Having now listened to these three albums together and over a rather short but intense listening timescale, it has cast a different light on Robin Taylor's output. For those who have not yet strayed into the Taylor universe then the two albums reviewed here, or perhaps the previously reviewed Certain Undiscoveries might well make a good starting point. Although there is still much of his often peculiar take on the "darker" side of jazz rock evident, the material is certainly much more accessible and will certainly appeal to those who enjoy challenging Canterbury infused prog instrumentals.
Certain Undiscoveries: 7 out of 10
Soundwall: 7.5 out of 10
Cyril Achard Trio - Trace
Tracklist: L’ inexistence (6:27), Arabesque (7:35), Aguas Marinhas (7:18), Un Songe (7:17), La Javanaise (7:47)
Guitarist Cyril Achard cut his progressive teeth via stints with notable French bands such as Atoll, Araakeen and Quartiers Nord. He released his first solo album Confusion in 1997 and since then has been involved in a number of compilation albums and solo releases through the Lion Music label. Belying his inferred progressive roots, and slightly at odds with much of Lion Music's output, Achard appears on his latest release in the form of a jazz trio.
Accompanying Achard (Godin classical guitar) on Trace are Fred Pasqua (drums) and Lilian Bencini (double bass). The five pieces performed are intimate, recorded "live" in the studio with the minimum of re-takes, thus making the performances spontaneous and the recording has a lively sound - especially from the drum kit.
Of the tunes from Trace we might easily tag them with a "jazz" label and let that infer what it may. Certainly there is no way we can get away from the jazz origins here, however I found that perhaps as Achard played a nylon strung guitar that this influenced the tunes. Arabesque has a distinctly Spanish flavour, whilst a South American feel is present in Aguas Marinhas. I certainly enjoyed the lightness of the performances and refreshingingly found that the melody remained close to the arrangement at all times. Pasqua and Bencini are sympathetic to the pieces providing a varied and solid backbone to the music, along with short and precise solo spots.
The package comes as a CD and DVD combination, however as I only have the CD, I will have to quote from Lion Music's site as to the contents of the DVD:
"You find live version of Aguas Marinhas and L’ inexistence. Plus two personal arrangements on Miles Davis “Solar” and Joe Henderson “Inner urge”, both electric. Then a personal fusion composition, “Dissidence” played electric too."
I apologise for the brevity of this review, however I suspect that this is one for the jazz/guitar buffs amongst the progressive fold. This said the tunes from Trace fall soothingly on the ears, although by no means is this easy listening or background music. A nice find and certainly if my few words have touched the right chord with you, then well worth checking out.